Student Stories: Drowning World raises questions, awareness of climate change
Published: Nov. 1, 2016
By Hanna Kielar
Few would disagree that photographer Gideon Mendel uses his photos to spread awareness about whats happening around the world. Beginning his career photographing the final years of apartheid, then expanding to cover a broader range of global topics, Mendel has been featured in major magazines like National Geographic, Conde Naste Traveller, Express and Rolling Stone. It wasn't until I explored one exhibit myself that his work challenged me to personally address an issue of global concern: climate change.
Drowning World, a collection that was on display at Michigan State University's Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, has been Mendel's focus since 2007. These pieces contextualize the effects of climate change by showcasing victims of severe flooding around the world. The exhibit consists of three parts, titled Submerged Portraits, Watermarks and The Water Chapters; each piece feeds into the others. Even as a removed viewer, I felt personally invested; as I moved through the collection, I became more and more aware of the global impacts of climate change.
Submerged Portraits features photographs of men and women in different flood areas around the world, striking normal poses while standing in the ruins of their homes, flood waters sometimes as high as their chests. Almost all of the subjects have their eyes directly looking into the camera - defiant, but helpless. One photograph finds a woman almost completely submerged in flood water, reclined on a bench and smoking a cigarette as if this was just another day. I cannot imagine sitting so calmly knowing my life and all of my possessions have been washed away. How could I start over?
A stark contrast to the portraits in the previous section, Watermarks consists of enlarged photographs Mendel recovered from various flood zones. Damaged family portraits and graduation photos cover the walls. Some are so distorted from floodwater and chemicals, their subjects are barely distinguishable; the pictures are transformed into new works of art. It's disarming to see into these intimate moments without knowing anything about the families. There's a distance between the subject and the viewer, but also a kinship and feeling of shared responsibility.
Mendel adds another dimension to these jarring images with the third part of the exhibit, The Water Chapters. Video footage from disaster areas around the world plays on a loop; sounds of flowing water and trucks provide a distinct separation between nature and man-made technology. At first, I was more aware of the water sounds, then I became conscious of only the industrial noises. I began to picture my family cooking over open flames, wading through floodwaters and bathing outside, like the subjects in these video clips. Again, I was confronted with the question Mendel poses throughout the entire exhibit: if we continue to ignore the warning signs, what will happen to our world?
As a supplement to Mendels exhibit at the Broad, and to kick off the Water Moves MSU initiative, a few photographs from the Submerged Portraits collection have been enlarged and placed in the Red Cedar River along walking paths. The subjects, already photographed in water, appear to be rising from the river.
The implications of the exhibit and all its pieces were disarming, yet beautiful in the most tragic way. It was an emotional experience from start to finish, and I highly recommend visiting Mendel's website for a virtual tour of the exhibit.
Learn more about the Red Cedar River art project and consider joining the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum team for a walking tour of the photos along the river this Sunday, Nov. 6.